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For All Nails, pt. 9

(With apologies to Chet.)

May 1974

From the New York Herald Monthly Review of Books

Two years ago, Robert Sobel published _For Want of A Nail_.  Intended
as a summary history for professionals, _For Want of A Nail_ became a
minor bestseller in a nation looking to understand its peculiar place
in the world and, perhaps more importantly, the dislocations of its
southern neighbor.

Sobel was highly criticized for what many called an anti-Mexican bias
throughout his work.  The book was, in fact, banned from sale in
Mexico, which only contributed to its popularity in North America. 
Nevertheless, the author strongly denied any anti-Mexican bias.  Sobel
did, however, admit to being biased against the North American
Rebellion.  In a buried footnote on page 185 of _For Want of A Nail_,
Sobel wrote:  "My own feeling is that a rebel victory would have
signaled the beginning of an age of anarchy, in which western
civilization might have been crushed."  That quote, in a buried
footnote, attracted the most vituperative criticism of Sobel's work.

In his new book, _For All Time_, Sobel has decided to address his
critics, but in a most peculiar fashion.  Rather than a conventional
historical analysis, _For All Time_ is what the author calls
"counterfactual history."   That is to say, _For All Time_ is a
history of events that never happened, complete with false footnotes,
invented historical personages, and imaginary countries.

The premise is, of course, that the rebels are victorious at the
Battle of Saratoga, which eventually leads to a British withdrawal
from most of North America and the creation of a new nation, the
United States of America.  Britain retains control of the northern
reaches of the continent, which eventually become the nation of

The constitution of the USA, predictably, resembles the original
constitution of the USM.  The first president is George Washington. 
Surprisingly, given the author's priors, the new nation falls prey to
neither anarchy nor foreign powers (although it fails miserably in a
brief attempt to seize Canada).  Rather, for the first sixty years of
its existence, the imaginary republic thrives and expands, seizing the
northern half of Mexico and prospering mightily.

The first sign of Sobel's dystopic intent come in Europe, where the
Paris uprising of 1789 becomes a generalized social revolution,
leading to the collapse of the monarchy.  An expansionist regime takes
power, and plunges the Continent into two decades of war.  Eventually
a coalition led by Britain restores something like the order which
preceded it, and Europe returns to stability --- but the aftereffects
of the American Rebellion and the wars against France will continue to

In North America, the fictitious USA, like the real USM, is utterly
unable to deal with the institution of slavery.  There is no peaceful
abolition.  Rather, slavery provokes increasingly violent disputes
between the states that permit it and those that do not, ultimately
leading to the secession of the Southern Confederation and Jefferson
and a long and bloody war to reconquer them.  The war, as described,
is truly horrorific, making the Rocky Mountain War seem like a mere
skirmish.  Over 300,000 soldiers die, the South is impoverished, and
although slavery is abolished in 1864 American race relations are
permanently poisoned.

After the Civil War, the author has both America and Europe enter a
period of sustained peace and prosperity.  Lest one think, however,
that the avoidance of the Bloody Eighties means that Sobel is
deviating from dystopia, Europe is plunged into a devastating and
utterly pointless conflict in 1914.  The descriptions of the war are
fascinating.  Unlike the real Global War, the combatants in Sobel's
"First World War" (the name is as ominous as it sounds) have neither
effective airmobiles nor masses of motorized vehicles.  The result is
a grinding and horrendous stalemate, as a British-French coalition
throws away millions of lives against entrenched German lines on the
Western Front.  On the Eastern Front, the war leads to the collapse of
the Tsarist regime.  Instead of breaking up, however, Russia falls
under the control of a group of radical socialists calling themselves
"Communists."  They proceed to establish a dictatorship more brutal
and more controlling than anything in real history, slaughtering more
of their own citizens than even Bruning attempted and eliminating
almost all private property.  (We will return to the "Communists"
later:  their rise is directly connected to the victory of the

The USA gets involved in the First World War in 1917 despite suffering
fewer provocations and with fewer ties to Britain than the CNA
possessed in 1939.  Like Mexico, Sobel's fictitious nation is
possessed with a militaristic streak.  The British-French-American
coalitions "wins" the war, but it is a bitter victory.  Disillusioned,
the USA turns in upon itself.  In Europe, the Communists win a bloody
civil war, reconquering most of the Russian Empire, and Germany
becomes an uneasy and unstable republic.

In 1929, a series of mistakes by the American central bank turns what
would otherwise be a severe recession into a decade-long economic
catastrophe.  The parallel is with the 1937 recession, but in Sobel's
world idealistic governments prove unable to make the correct
decisions and the downturn is severely prolonged.  In Germany a
right-wing dictatorship rises to power, led by a madman who preaches
against all the liberal values of the Enlightenment.  Across Europe,
democracies fail.  In Asia, Japan begins an imperialist expansion.  A
Second World War is indeed inevitable, and breaks out in 1939.  In
what is perhaps the weakest part of the book, the USA is drawn into
the war when Japan launches a sneak attack against its Hawaiian
possession in 1941.  Why Japan would launch a clearly suicidal attack
against a much more powerful enemy is never clearly explained.

The Second World War is fought between a coalition of the USA and
Britain, aligned with a brutal Russian Communist dictatorship, against
Germany and Japan.  Germany's regime, the National Socialists, preach
racial superiority and reject the Enlightenment.  Unbelievably, they
begin to slaughter Europe's Jews in a horrifyingly mechanical way,
creating massive industrial death camps. The Japanese in Asia are less
systematic, but no less fanatical.  The American-Russian coalition
eventually brings them down, but only due to the precocious
development of the atomic bomb by the USA, which it then (improbably)
shares with its Russian allies.  No less the eight atomic bombs are
used against the Germans and Japanese.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the USA again tries to turn
inward, leaving half the world under the control of the Communist
behemoth, a Russian empire that stretches from Italy and central
Germany in the west to Indochina in the east.  The Russians are
unafraid to use atomic weapons to maintain their empire, and they do,

There is no equivalent of the Mason Doctrine.   Rather, western Europe
is left to fend for itself.  Predictably, the countries of Europe
become impoverished and fall into dictatorship.  Britain is forced to
withdraw from its empire, but only after using nuclear weapons in
Burma.  France uses even more atomic weapons to maintain its empire in
northern Africa.  In the southern half of Africa, however, the
colonial powers are succeeded not by independent (if poor and
unstable) independent states, but by an expansionist South African
bent on establishing white rule over the Africans and enslaving the
entire continent.

Western Europe stumbles from crisis to crisis.  France falls into
civil war, and for a brief period comes to be ruled by an African
military officer who declares himself Emperor and institutes --- yes
--- state-sponsored cannibalism.  Britain exhausts itself attempting
to defend its empire.  By 1970, it is facing Irish and Welsh terrorism
in the home islands.

The USA is no better off.  The attempt to re-impose _de facto_ slavery
after abolition produces the inevitable result by the 1950s, when the
country begins to face an increasingly violent rebellion on the part
of its African population.  A Communist regime in Argentina takes
power, and involves the USA in a war (also using atomic weapons)
followed by a long and painful occupation.  Mexico --- the half which
remained independent --- also falls into disorder.  By 1971, when the
book ends, the USA is facing guerrilla wars at home and abroad, the
half of Europe not under Communist control is at war for the third
time in a century, and those who do live under Communism are under a
dictatorship so absolute that Sobel has to invent a word for it: 
"totalitarian."  Millions are dead, not just from war and starvation
(as in our world), but from deliberate industrial genocides and
state-sponsored cannibalism.  It is, in short, a dark vision intended
to make us realize how lucky we are.

This dark vision does, in fact, stem directly from the author's view
of the ideology behind the men who organized the North American
Rebellion.  If there is a theme to Sobel's horrorific dystopia, it
could be summed as "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." 
The rebels in North America were the most idealistic and utopian of

To Be Continued

(Sorry, Chet, I couldn't resist.  Where's Pt. 113 anyway?)